By Sayward Rebhal – vegan lifestyle coach, blogger, and author.
A few years ago, Al Gore was asked why he didn’t mention the environmental impact of animal agriculture in his groundbreaking 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. His candid answer (that getting people to drive a hybrid is easy, while getting them to give up animal products is almost impossible) speaks volumes about the personal nature of environmental politics.
Food culture, like politics or religion, is deeply integrated into our identities. It’s stamped on our psyches from our very earliest memories of grandma’s ham casserole, fishing with our fathers, or lazy Sunday suppers around the kitchen table. Food is in our hearts. And we all know that matters of the heart are not always subject to the laws of logic or reason.
I know this firsthand. I lived for years as a radical environmental activist – rallying and protesting, anguishing over my carbon footprint, and reusing anything and everything in order to minimize my impact. But somehow I was never willing to look down and face the inconsistencies on my plate. Perhaps this was because the final truth is the most inconvenient of them all.
According to a 2006 UN report, animal agriculture generates more greenhouse gasses and contributes more to global warming than each and every mode of transportation in the entire world, combined. Because every step up the rung of the food ladder requires more energetic input, eating high on the food chain (animals) results in a staggering waste of our very limited resources. When raising livestock for food, the energy we put in far exceeds the caloric output we gain. For example:
- 70% of American-grown grain is used to feed livestock instead of people,
- roughly 2,500 gallons of water is required to produce a single pound of beef,
- and fossil fuels power an endless machine of transport, processing, and packaging to bring animal products to market.
- Eating high on the food chain minimizes efficiency, whereas eating low on the food chain (plants) conserves energy and resources and maximizes caloric efficiency. Essentially, eating low can change everything.
In a recent issue of Lucky Peach magazine, Michael Pollan contrasts the “fossil food chain” against the “solar food chain”. He weighs the differences between our current animal agriculture system, which uses 10 calories of fossil fuel for every 1 calorie of food that it produces, and a natural system based around plants, in which plants perform the work for us and thus create a carbon-neutral food production system. In Pollan’s words “resolarizing the food chain should be our goal in every way – taking advantage of the everyday miracle that is photosynthesis.”
If unapologetically omnivorous Michael Pollan is ready to make that connection, then isn’t it about time that the rest of us follow his lead? As intellectually honest and conscientious epicureans, I believe that it’s time.
As a food blogger and lifestyle coach, I’m often asked about my best tips for transitioning towards a more plant-based diet. Here in Santa Barbara, we are incredibly lucky. We happen to live in a paradise where plant foods are available year round in a dizzying array of delectable choices. I tell my clients that they may actually find eating low on the food chain to not only be easier than they had imagined, but more fun and delicious as well. If you’re ready to dip your toe into these exciting plant-based waters, then here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Keep It Small, Keep It Sustainable
Making real change means creating a lifestyle that’s sustainable and will work for you in the long term. That means making small, incremental adjustments to your routines that you can stick with over time.
Programs like Meatless Monday or Vegan Before Six (VB6) can provide a sense of structure to a seemingly difficult undertaking. Meatless Monday is a national campaign that encourages people to go meat-free all day, every Monday. Their comprehensive, interactive website will keep you inspired with an abundance of recipes and resources.
For those who are a little more eager to jump on in, VB6 encourages eating exclusively vegan foods (no meat, dairy, or eggs) until 6:00 pm. After 6, you are free to eat whatever you choose. To learn more about VB6 read the book of the same name, written by Mark Bittman, a best-selling cookbook author and food writer.
- Downsize the Meat, Upsize the Veggies
During the meals where you do include meat, think of it as an accessory rather than the main event. Americans are used to focusing on meat as the centerpiece of the meal. However, in many cultures around the world meat is used sparingly, if at all, as an accompaniment or flavor enhancer. As a plant-forward eater, try to retrain yourself to think of meat in this minimized way. When creating your meals, aim to compose your plate of roughly 50% greens and veggies, 25% grains or starch, and 25% protein, which can come from animal (meat, dairy, or egg) or plant-based (beans, legumes, soy) sources.
- Dream Big, Have Fun
The biggest mistake that people make when they move towards eating a more plant-based diet is that they focus too much on what they’re not eating. Craving meat, missing eggs, or lamenting the lack of cheese is a scarcity mindset that is bound to leave you unsatisfied and uninspired. Instead of thinking about what is lost, I encourage people to focus on all that they’ll gain. There is an entire bounty of exciting new ingredients available to discover. Explore rare seaweeds and exotic mushrooms, heirloom legumes like Christmas limas, cranberry beans, or adzukis, and fun new plant-based proteins like tofu, tempeh, and seitan. With so much incredible food out there to try, venturing into the world of vegetarian cuisine will undoubtedly expose you to an abundance of new flavors, textures, and techniques.
Now to share with you the final and most important point of all: have fun. Not only are plants delicious, delightful, and beautiful, but eating them will make you feel amazing. Best of all, by eating more plants and thereby displacing animal ingredients, you’ll be creating a net benefit for the environment.
Eat to save the planet? Well bon appétit!